The first day on a cycling tour is always the tester, a short excursion where tour leaders read the group’s makeup. Who is a wobbly biker, who doesn’t signal when turning, who whines about climbing for even the shortest distance. Recovering from a cold that had settled into my lungs, I hoped that warm-up ride would provide an extra day to recover before the real climbing began.
Because we were in Croatia, specifically Brač and Hvar, two of the Dalmatian Islands, to hillclimb. The string of 79 Adriatic islands are relatively low altitude if you’re coming from Colorado, and yet the strikingly beautiful hills are relentless.
I expected an exhausting week cycling in Croatia.
So it seemed contradictory when Neven, one of our group leaders, introduced me to the Croatian concept of fjaka later that evening.
“Fjaka is Croatia’s way of taking a siesta, except we can do it anytime we want to,” Neven explained.
“Like zoning out?” I asked. The mini-bus we were driving in shuddered, gathering itself for the lurch forward, then groaned as it rounded yet another switchback on the narrow road up to Dol, the destination for tonight’s welcome dinner. I looked out the window into the darkening countryside: this was one hill we didn’t have to climb again.
“You will see,” he said.
Neven, seasoned cyclist, man of few words, didn’t explain further. But I wondered. There was the daily schedule of miles to log cycling, the roadside stops to see olive oil museums, quaint villages, and stone churches. There was one of the world’s oldest stonecutting schools to tour in Pučisča, there were meals to consume and there were 19 strangers riding with us to become acquainted with. And with the 8:30 am (sharp) assembly for group instructions each morning — where were we to wedge in this siesta-fjaka?
Fjaka defines the Croatian way of thinking.
As the group spilled out of the bus, Marco, our host for the evening, welcomed us to his family’s castle, a stone villa dating to the 15th century. The evening began on the terrace with grappa sipping — walnut, black olive and an herbal infusion —, followed by peka, a meat stew made from lamb, veal, chicken, potatoes and vegetables sharing a cast iron pot cooked over an open fire. The dish takes hours to prepare, then hours to simmer while the flavors blend, each ingredient contributing the best of itself. The broth is simple and sustaining. Croatian cuisine pulls from family recipes hundreds of years old, from neighboring Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia – formerly Yugoslavia. The recipes reflect the country’s turbulent history, a testament to its many occupiers and conquerors.
For the rest of that week riding the Dalmatian hills, we tested the limits of human exertion.
But the memory of that meal returned often. I saw it while pedaling through Stari Grad Plain, an agricultural landscape systemically divided by ancient stone walls that had been tilled since the Ionian Greeks in the 4th century BC. I pondered the history of Croatia while standing on the rain-washed balcony of our hotel in Postira, watching clouds make impressionist paintings on the water’s surface in the harbor. And as I listened to the cadence of laughter while new cycling friends splashed in the waters of the Adriatic during a refreshing break off the saddles, I took a step back from life.
Everywhere you go, there are pockets of fjaka.
Fjaka can happen wherever in the world you are. It can happen tasting a beer in Old Town, exploring the menu of an unfamiliar restaurant, sharing a meal among friends.
Fjaka is peace of mind, taking a break from responsibilities, discovering the different. It is also admiring your meal — and not posting that moment on Instagram because you know it will taste that much better right off the grill.
Fjaka is about creativity, innovation and self-exploration. Fjaka isn’t something you do. It’s what you make time for in your life every day.
And sometimes, it happens without even thinking about it.
I look forward to finding fjaka with The New Scene readers as we enjoy Fort Collins’ culinary world.